The conventional wisdom among local and foreign observers of Indonesian politics is that the Jakarta gubernatorial race will only get nastier in the runoff if incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama makes it to the second round.
For many, the first round of the Jakarta election, which lasted four months, was already exhaustingly and dismayingly sectarian, with thousands of conservative Muslims taking to the streets of Jakarta — four times! — spewing hate at Ahok, the Christian and ethnic Chinese candidate.
His rivals, Anies Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, have rejected allegations that they were behind the four religiously driven anti-Ahok rallies, but they (first Agus, and then Anies) certainly benefited from the rising sentiment against Ahok following allegations that he insulted the Quran.
That said, if there is a runoff between Ahok and one of the two Muslim contenders, will they refrain from playing the religion and race cards to beat Ahok?
It is not easy to be optimistic, but there is no reason to abandon all hope.
Against all odds Ahok has survived the sectarian attacks launched against him, with quick count results showing he was supported by a huge number of Jakartans, many of whom were Muslims who had been repeatedly reminded during Friday prayers that their faith prohibited them from electing a non-Muslim as leader.
Several pollsters have concluded that Ahok got around 42 percent of the vote, followed by Anies with around 39 percent and Agus with 17 to 18 percent.
The people of Jakarta have spoken: It’s Anies against Ahok in the runoff election on April 19, with Agus, who briefly led several political surveys, forced to leave the race after failing to even get half of the votes garnered by the other two contenders.
If you want to see the glass as half full, the results of Wednesday’s election can tell us one thing: Religion and race are not a factor for a significant number of Jakarta’s voters.
More than 40 percent of voters believed that Ahok, despite his ethnicity and religion, should be given a chance to extend his term in the capital.
The rest of the voters (more than 50 percent) may or may not have voted based on religious or ethnic considerations.
Let us say they are sectarian voters and did refuse to vote for Ahok, whose approval rating exceeded 70 percent before he was accused of blasphemy, because of his faith and ethnicity.
It is worth noting that it was Anies, and not Agus, who won the second-most votes after Ahok.
Many have lamented the fact that Anies turned conservative to boost his poor ratings in the first weeks of the campaign period. But Anies’ ratings, according to pollsters, surged after the public debates held by the General Elections Commission (KPU).
An online poll conducted by MetroTV, which is linked to the NasDem Party that supported Ahok, showed that 48 percent of Twitter users thought Anies fared better than Ahok (47 percent) and Agus (5 percent).
Debates, held in the last days of the campaign period, mattered for Jakarta’s voters.
The graft allegations that dogged Agus’ running mate Sylviana Murni, and the fact that his father, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, could so easily lose his cool in the fraught gubernatorial race may have contributed to Agus’ poor performance in the election.
But his greatest weakness could have been his lackluster performance in the debates, with some pollsters saying Agus had failed to convince voters about his programs, including his cash assistance plan to inject Rp 1 billion (US$75,069) into community units (RW) in Jakarta every year.
A survey by Indikator Indonesia, for instance, found that 64 percent of voters were unsure whether the scheme would fare well if Agus was elected governor. For some people, Agus’ cash assistance program just made no sense.
While it is naive to say that religion is not a factor for those who voted for Anies, it is unwise to paint all his voters as irrational people who overlooked all considerations other than faith in electing a governor.
Anies, for instance, won the most votes in Bukit Duri in South Jakarta and Pasar Ikan in North Jakarta whose residents resented Ahok’s ruthless eviction policy, not his faith or ethnicity.
That said, Anies may need to do more than remind voters that Ahok is not a Muslim to win the election. And thus Ahok may still have the chance of convincing more voters that he has better programs than Anies.
Both candidates will be given a chance to campaign for two weeks between April 6 and April 15, which will include another public debate. The two candidates have different stances on many issues, ranging from the controversial Jakarta Bay reclamation project and evictions to how to deal with bullying at school.
The bigoted hard-liners will continue to bring sectarian issues into the election, but Anies, Ahok and Jakarta’s voters who truly care about the Big Durian have the power to stop them from hijacking the gubernatorial race.
It’s been an exhausting election season. It is now time for the candidates and their respective supporters to talk more about substantial matters and issues that really matter to Jakarta and its people.